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Video Games - Harmless Entertainment or Social Menace?

This time I was a special agent charged with undermining an oppressive regime. My weapons were guns and explosives; and I needed them, although I never quite worked out which of the many at my disposal was best for a particular occasion. Nevertheless, I accepted a few missions, some of which I succeeded in, two or three tries later. This, of course, was after being previously killed, an irrelevant inconvenience in the virtual world where resurrections are an accepted asset. I was never quite sure which faction I was actually allied to, accepting jobs from all quarters, dubious or not. When someone fired at me, I figured they were the enemy at the time, so I shot back. That I annihilated many of the opposition was plain from the corpses littering the ground before me, but I felt no remorse - they were, after all, merely digital representations of people.

The disturbing realisation, however, that my own character was becoming increasingly real to me seemed to endorse the fears of anti video-game critics, and I found myself asking the same questions. Was it possible for game-players to be so indoctrinated that they became closet avengers and vigilantes? Could they reach a point where they might employ the same aggressive force and belligerence in real life situations as they needed to survive in their games? I'd like to think that the virtual reality of most games is recognised as such, but I have my doubts. Face-to-face conflict and brutality, even against an opponent clad in pseudo-medieval armour, is too personal and could awaken violent tendencies that might explode at any time anywhere, given sufficient provocation. I know how I felt while I was playing the special agent, how seduced by the role I became. Even though it was all part of research that started out as an objective assessment, there was a certain fascination in playing the role of someone I could never be. Fortunately, I have no desire to emulate that person outside of the game arena which I readily accept as a fantasy that stops as soon as the computer is switched off. What troubles me is that some, hopefully only a small minority, either can't tell the difference, or choose not to.

I tried out a few more games of different types and eventually came to the conclusion that most were relatively harmless. The puzzle concept, as I've already said, is quite entertaining and helps improve mental awareness along with hand-eye co-ordination. There are strategy games in which the player commands armies, deploys troops and fights battles, usually in conjunction with a plan to improve overall strengths and often finances. These generally tend to be prolonged campaigns and would have little appeal for anyone of an impatient nature. Playing them, I experienced a sense of detachment from reality, not seeing flesh-and-blood soldiers treated as cannon fodder, but simply as representational pieces I'd move around to achieve the desired outcome. Simulations of historical conflicts such as "Medieval Total War" and "Harpoon" are absorbing, but don't strike me as leading to anti-social behaviour. In fact, having to consider both the here-and-now with respect to the big picture can be good training for real-life situations. Even the popular, extremely addictive "Diablo", although essentially violent because it is all about killing, is pure fantasy and any overflow of a player's emotions or attitudes into the real world would be miniscule; unless, of course, they regularly encounter ghouls and monsters lurking in the shopping mall.

I highly recommend "Diablo" to anyone who loves to lose themselves in make-believe, and one other that it would be criminal not to mention - "Plants vs Zombies". It is nothing like reality (not my kind, at least), is totally crazy and a ripper therapy for stress-relief. Even losing is a laugh and sometimes better than winning. The in-built humour tickles my fancy, as it does many others, judging by the online comments. It's only politically incorrect if you're a zombie, so most game-players will take no offence.

In conclusion, I would say that the majority of the older games are fairly innocuous, the new shoot-to-kill breed less so. Some are plainly undesirable and contain subliminal elements such as coloured flashes, jump-cut scenes and stirring music, all of which are there simply to get the player stressed and on edge. That they seduce and corrupt is, to my mind, not in doubt, and I worry that less-discerning, impressionable players will have become brainwashed to the point where a problem in reality subconsciously triggers a mental flip to their role-playing attitude when they might easily act out the kind of solution that worked for them in the virtual world.

Unfortunately, these games are available to all and sundry. My best advice to players is: take your frustrations out on your fantasy enemies, but continue to be nice to people in the real world you actually have to live in. For parents: play the games yourselves before deciding which are appropriate for your children; and simply ban the ones that you consider to be unsuitable. This may cause a huge upset, but stick to your guns - metaphorically speaking, of course.

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